Postmodern Physics

Editor’s Note: Guest writer Frank Tipler is a professor of physics at Tulane University.

A recent study shows that Shakespeare is no longer a required course for English majors at the overwhelming majority of American elite universities. This is not a surprise: most people are well aware that students are no longer taught the basics in the humanities departments.

Unfortunately, the situation is just as bad in physics departments. At the overwhelming majority of physics departments at American universities, even the most elite, key elements of basic physics are no longer taught. For example, I am aware of no American university that requires, for an undergraduate degree in physics, a course in general relativity, which is Albert Einstein’s theory of gravity. At the overwhelming majority of American universities, including Harvard, M.I.T. and Cal Tech, one is not even required to take a course in general relativity to get a Ph.D. in physics! As a consequence, most American Ph.D.’s in physics do not understand general relativity. If a problem arises that requires knowledge of Einstein’s theory of gravity, almost all American physicists can only look blank. This is in spite of the fact that general relativity has been known to be the correct theory of gravity for almost a century.

And it gets worse. The greatest achievement of physics since World War II has been the discovery of the Standard Model of particle physics, a unified theory of all forces and matter not including gravity. The electromagnetic force — light and radio waves — and the weak force responsible for radioactive decay, are shown to be two aspects of one force, the electroweak force, by the Standard Model. The Standard Model also explains how all fundamental particles obtain their mass and it predicts that matter can be directly converted into energy – which hints at a new energy source far more powerful than nuclear energy.

The Standard Model has been experimentally confirmed, and some dozen and more Nobel Prizes in physics have been awarded for the discovery and experimental confirmation of the Standard Model. Yet I am aware of no physics department in the United States that requires a course in the Standard Model for an undergraduate degree in physics. Very few, if any, require a course in the Standard Model even for a Ph.D. in physics. It’s as if law schools stopped requiring students to take courses in crucial subjects like contracts and property law.

So one can get an undergraduate degree in physics and even a Ph.D., without knowing anything at all about the fundamental forces that control the universe at the most basic level. Since our entire civilization requires at least somebody knows basic physics, requires that at least people who have Ph.D.’s in physics know basic physics, this is a disaster. If very few physicists know the Standard Model, it is unlikely that anyone will attempt to develop the new source of energy which the Standard Model shows is possible in principle.

The basic reasons why modern physics is not covered in required courses are identical to the basic reasons why Shakespeare is not covered: (1) the faculty in both cases want to teach their narrow specialty rather than the basic courses in their field, (2) the faculty members in both cases no longer understand the basic material in their own field, (3) the faculty no longer believe there are fundamental truths in their own disciplines. I’m sure that many members of typical university’s English faculty no longer have a basic understanding of Shakespeare. How could they, if they themselves have never taken a course on Shakespeare? A degree in English is no longer a guarantee that the degree holder has a basic knowledge of Shakespeare or other great writers.

Similarly, a degree in physics from an American university is no guarantee that the student with this degree understands basic physics. The physics faculty’s increasing ignorance of basic physics is starting to show up in their research, as I describe at length in my recent book, The Physics of Christianity (Doubleday, 2007). I show that, across all disciplines, a collapse of belief in Christianity over the past several decades among university faculty has been accompanied by a collapse in the belief that there is fundamental truth which should be imparted to students.

Every undergraduate majoring in physics, or at the very least, every graduate student in physics, should be required to take a two-semester sequence: one semester on general relativity, and one semester on the Standard Model. Both courses have been taught for decades to physics students as an elective, but no physics department will require them.

Once, on my own initiative, I forced a required course on the Standard Model at the graduate level, since I firmly believe that knowledge of the Standard Model should be required for all Ph.D.’s in physics. I achieved this by changing a required two-semester graduate course in electromagnetism into a one-semester course in electromagnetism, and a one-semester course on the Standard Model. I used an undergraduate textbook for the Standard Model course.

The students violently objected. They didn’t see any reason to learn the Standard Model. They saw no reason why they should know any basic physics beyond what was standard 50 years ago. The other faculty backed them up. This occurred more than 10 years ago, and since then not one Ph.D. student at Tulane has been taught the Standard Model.

The reason the physics faculty backed the graduate students up — supported them in their desire to remain ignorant of the central fundamental theory of physics — is that they themselves were never taught the Standard Model when they were graduate students, and thus they saw no reason to require their own students to learn it. I wasn’t taught the Standard Model either when I was a graduate student — it was in the process of being discovered when I was a graduate student — but it was obviously something every physicist should know, so I taught myself the theory. These same physics faculty were never taught general relativity either (I was; and in fact my Ph.D. thesis was on a problem in general relativity), so they see no reason why physics Ph.D.’s should be taught general relativity.

I fear that in the very near future, education in physics will have to be obtained from some source other than a university. It is becoming increasingly clear that this corruption of education is probably universal across all disciplines. If so, then all advanced education will have to be obtained outside of the university. And if that is the case, then why should universities exist at all?